First, the good news: A growing number of U.S. employers are offering flexible work options like telecommuting or compressed work weeks, according to a recent Families and Work Institute study. The bad news? Take advantage of them, and you may pay a price.
New research published last week in a special issue of the Journal of Social Issues finds that employees who use flexible work arrangements–whether they’re male or female–are often penalized career-wise for doing so. The issues’s co-editor Joan C. Williams, founding director of the Center for Work Life at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, calls it the “flexibility stigma.” She spoke to DailyWorth about its effect.
DailyWorth: How does the ‘flexibility stigma’ affect men and women differently?
Joan Williams: Men who take leave and either men or women who adopt flexible work arrangements often encounter career setbacks. But for women, the flexibility stigma is part and parcel of the maternal role bias, or the gender bias triggered by motherhood, which is the strongest form of gender bias. For men, the flexibility stigma is a gender nonconformity stigma, meaning it reflects that they are behaving in ways that are seen as not suitably manly.
Does it affect women of different classes differently?
Yes, in dramatically different ways. For professional women, the flexibility stigma reflects the fact that after women become mothers, they’re often complimented for leaving their jobs but face disapproval for continuing to work full-time. For low-income women, the flexibility stigma reflects the belief that the women were irresponsible to have children in the first place.
Do you find that women are punished for taking an extended maternity leave?
It varies from workplace to workplace, which is a very important point. Sometimes women do not encounter the flexibility stigma at all. In other workplaces, they do encounter the workplace flexibility stigma and it is triggered in different workplaces by different events. Sometimes, we face the “Maternal Wall” [a workplace bias against women with children] just for taking leave. Sometimes it’s fine if women take leave but they will hit the wall if they ask for flexible work arrangements, and sometimes women will hit the wall only if they have a second child. Sometimes they don’t hit the wall of at all.
Do paid parental leaves and flexible work options encourage women who might otherwise be more committed to working to ‘lean out’ from their careers?
I completely disagree with that premise. There is actually evidence that flexible work arrangements often encourage women who would otherwise stay home full-time to maintain their link to paid work. Sometimes the existence of flexible work options results in mothers feeling pressure to work part time. But at the same time, flexible work options often keep mothers in the workplace who otherwise would be home full-time because there is just no way that they could work at a full-time, long-hours career.
Do you think employers are less likely to promote or put men in higher positions if they take indicate they’re interested in flexible arrangements?
Again it depends on the employers. Most employers expect men to work full-time, full-force for 40 years straight and penalize them if they don’t. That is not true of all employers, but it is true of most employers–and that is gender discrimination because employers don’t treat women that way. Men are often penalized for taking family leave, an arrangement that they are entitled to take. They are both discouraged from taking it and penalized if they do take it.
You implied that feminism is also perpetuating some of these problems by putting pressure on men to live up to the “ideal of work devotion.” How so?
The common formulation is that feminism is about choices. But choices for whom? The formulation rests on the assumption that a woman is entitled to stay home full-time if that is what she wants to do. That means that we aren’t changing the assumption that the man’s duty is to support his family singlehandedly if that is what his wife wants. Women cannot insist that men perform as ideal workers if women want them to contribute 50 percent to the family responsibilities as well – that is often impossible if you are working a long-hours job.
Tell us: Do you think there’s a flexibility bias against women and men? Have you experienced it?